Circle Tour from Anchorage

On a clear day travelers can enjoy views of the Alaska Range south from the Richardson Highway south of Delta Junction. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

This is a 1,000-mile circle tour from Anchorage that takes about 10 days, but can be easily stretched to 15 days by adding side trips and leaving a few days on either end to explore Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. The basic route takes you from Anchorage to Whittier; by ferry from Whittier to Valdez; up the Richardson to Fairbanks; and return to Anchorage via the Parks Highway. For mile-by-mile descriptions, accommodations and other details, see Highway logs on this website or consult the print edition of The MILEPOST.

Whittier harbor is the perfect jumping off point to see the beauty of Prince William Sound, via tour cruise, kayak, or ferry. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

Days 1 & 2: Whittier to Valdez

Before or during your stay in Anchorage, check current Alaska State Ferry schedules for sailings from Whittier to Valdez that fit your schedule. Reserve and pay for passenger and vehicle space on the ferry online before driving the Seward Highway south to Whittier, 59 miles from Anchorage. To reach Whittier you must drive through the 2.5-mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. Built in 1942-43, this modified railroad tunnel accommodates only single-lane traffic and is also used by the Alaska Railroad. Vehicle traffic is controlled from vehicle holding lanes at either end of the tunnel, on the Whittier side and at Bear Valley on the west side. Eastbound and westbound traffic moves through the tunnel on an alternating schedule throughout the day, with certain time periods for use by the railroad. It is critical to time your drive to the tunnel schedule (available online) so that you arrive in time for your ferry.

The iconic “Valdez Alaska,” sign welcomes visitors as they enter downtown Valdez from the Richardson Highway. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

Arrive in Valdez and find accommodations at local motels or campgrounds. There are several activities to recommend in Valdez, including sea kayaking (we’ve taken the beginner’s guided kayak tour of the harbor) and glacier wildlife cruises. Prince William Sound Community College has the Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum collection and also shows films on the pipeline and earthquake. The Valdez Historical Museum downtown has excellent exhibits as well, including the original Cape Hinchinbrook lighthouse lens. And don’t let the warehouse exterior of the Valdez Museum Annex fool you. This facility has a wonderful scale model of Valdez as it existed prior to the 1964’s Good Friday earthquake. 

Valdez Museum & Historical Archive, located in downtown Valdez, features artifacts and stories from 1898 to the present. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

Drive out the Richardson Highway 2.8 miles to the Dayville Road turnoff. This 5-mile side road leads to Allison Point, a popular destination for pink and silver salmon fishing in season, and offers great scenic views of Port Valdez, the 13-mile-long estuary at the head of Valdez Arm.

Day 3 to 5 Valdez to Fairbanks

If you are lucky with the weather, you will have fabulous views leaving Valdez as the Richardson Highway winds through Keystone Canyon and up over Thompson Pass. 

Thompson Pass offers top-of-the-world views of the Chugach Mountains. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

Thompson Pass is more than 2,000 feet lower than Alaska’s highest highway pass—4,800-foot Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway—but since you begin the drive at sea level, it seems higher than its 2,678 feet. The real climb begins about 20 miles outside of Valdez and lasts 7.5 miles. Stop at the pass for photos and then again a few miles farther on at Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site. This day-use only park, the most visited site in the Copper River Basin, showcases Worthington Glacier with interpretive displays, paved paths and glacier viewpoints. 

Worthington Glacier on the Richardson Highway. (Photo by Sharon Nault)

Side trip: At Milepost V 82.5, the Richardson Highway junctions with Alaska Route 10, the Edgerton Highway. Drive 33 miles east to Chitina and the start of the McCarthy Road. Consider a side trip out the McCarthy Road: It deserves all the press it gets, both as a wonderful destination and as a memorable driving experience. McCarthy Road begins at Chitina and ends 59.5 miles later at the Kennicott River pedestrian bridge; McCarthy is less than a mile away on foot. Take a shuttle van from McCarthy out to Kennicott and touring the mill complex with one of the local guide services. Another popular activity in Kennicott is to hike out to Root Glacier, a 3-mile round trip. 

Kennecott Mill structures are designated a National Historic Landmark. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

Side trip: At Milepost V 100.2 on the Richardson Highway, take an easy side trip through the historic community of Copper Center. The historic Copper Center Lodge burned down in 2012 (and has since rebuilt as the Old Town Copper Center Inn), but the adjacent historical cabins were spared, and house the George I. Ashby Memorial Museum and Trail of ’98 Museum Annex. 

After crossing the Klutina River (a popular salmon fishing spot) on your drive north up the Richardson Highway, stop at to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Visitor Center At Milepost V 106.8. This is an interesting and educational stop, just 8 miles south of Glennallen on the Glenn Highway.

Harding Lake State Recreation Area offers canoe, kayak and paddle board rentals. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

From Glennallen, 115 miles north of Valdez, it is 247 miles to Fairbanks via the Richardson. This stretch of the Richardson Highway offers public fishing access to the Gulkana River, Paxson Lake (also a launch site for floating the Gulkana River to Sourdough), Quartz Lake, Birch Lake, Chena Lakes, and dozens of smaller stocked lakes.  This is also a very scenic section of the drive, with views of Mount Sanford, Mount Wrangell and Mount Drum in the rearview mirror and the Alaska Range in the front window. There are also good views of the Trans-Alaska pipeline

Pipeline Viewpoint at Milepost V 243.5 Richardson Highway with information boards pipeline facts and an overview of Alaska animals. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

At Delta Junction Visitor Information Center, Milepost V 266 on the Richardson Highway, there’s an outdoor pipeline display. There’s also an “End of the Alaska Highway” monument here, because Delta Junction–not Fairbanks–is the official end of the Alaska Highway. Take time to stop at Rika’s Roadhouse, located a few miles outside Delta Junction, where you can experience what an early Alaska roadhouse was like.

The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, adjacent to Griffin Park, offers free brochures, maps and tips on what to see and how to get there. (Photo by Kris Valencia)

Day 6 to 8 Fairbanks

There’s a lot to do in Fairbanks and a wide range of accommodations. For families, Pioneer Park is a good choice: it has a playground, a train ride, and lots of fun small shops and places to eat, as well as the popular Pioneer Air Museum. Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge on College Road and Alaska Bird Observatory (at Wedgewood Resort) are favorites with bird watchers. Taking a scenic cruise on the Chena River with Riverboat Discovery is a top visitor attraction. And no one should miss the University of Alaska Museum of the North, Georgeson Botanical Gardens, the Large Animal Research Station or Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. Take the Steese Expressway to these attractions (less than 10 miles away): Trans-Alaska oil pipeline viewpoint, Gold Daughters, and Gold Dredge No. 8. Chena Hot Springs Resort, a 125-mile round trip, can be a day trip or overnight trip, but it shouldn’t be missed.

Prudhoe Bay oil drilling rigs at the end of the Dalton Highway. (Photo by Sharon Nault)

Side trips: Drive the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle, Coldfoot or Prudhoe Bay, or take a guided tour to these spots with Northern Alaska Tour Company.

Days 9 & 10 Parks Highway

It is a 362-mile drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage via the Parks Highway. Certainly, you can do it in a day, but if you’ve come to see Alaska, plan to take your time traveling between these 2 cities: there are many places to stay, sights to see and streams to fish. It is also on this leg of the journey that most visitors pencil in a stay at Denali National Park.

The Denali National Park and Preserve sign at the junction of the Parks Highway and the Park Road is a favorite photo op. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

The entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve is just 125 miles south of Fairbanks and 237 miles north of Anchorage, but businesses serving Park visitors stretch from Healy to Cantwell. These include RV parks, campgrounds, lodges, trail rides, rafting, sightseeing flights and other adventure tours. The log of the Parks Highway in The MILEPOST® details all these stops. If you decide to camp inside Denali Park, you can reserve a campsite. (Riley Creek is the most accessible of the park’s campgrounds.)

The Nenana Canyon area near the park entrance is where most of the big hotels serving Denali Park visitors are located, as well as a gas station/convenience store, rafting outfitters, restaurants and other businesses. 

Don’t miss the free Sled Dog Demonstration at the Park Kennels; it is offered several times daily throughout the summer. (Courtesy Claire Abendroth, National Park Service)

While visiting Denali Park, take the free shuttle bus from the park visitor center to the sled dog demonstration at the Park Kennels. This is an easy and entertaining activity in the park, suitable for all ages. The park’s shuttle bus system operates daily from about mid-May to mid-September. Check out the options for Bus Services—How to Explore Denali online at www.nps.gov/dena.

Visit the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race™ Headquarters gift shop and museum at Milepost J 2.1 Knik-Goose Bay Road. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

If it’s a clear day you will have views of Denali from Broad Pass all the way back to Anchorage. Stops of interest between Denali Park and Anchorage include the Alaska Veterans Memorial/POW-MIA Rest Area; Talkeetna; Nancy Lake State Recreation Area; the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry at Mile 47; and Iditarod Headquarters on Knik Road in Wasilla.

Independence Mine State Historical Park is an must-see attraction on Hatcher Pass Road. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

Days 11 to 15 (Adding to your itinerary)

In Anchorage, visit Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center; hike Flattop; go to the Saturday Market; visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center; rent bikes and do the Coastal Trail; drive out to Eagle River Nature Center; drive Hatcher Pass Road to Independence Mine; drive out the Glenn Highway to the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site for a great view of that glacier, then stop at the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. 

The Musk Ox Farm is a great place to see these magnificent, ancient animals. (Photo by Serine Reeves)

On the Kenai, take the tram up Mount Alyeska; get up-close and personal with animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center; take a Kenai Fjords cruise out of Seward; raft the Kenai River at Cooper Landing; see Russian churches in Kenai and Ninilchik; go halibut fishing in Cook Inlet; fly out of Soldotna or Homer for bear viewing; explore Homer Spit, stop at the Pratt Museum and the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center in Homer; ferry over to Seldovia or Halibut Cove.

Halibut Cove is a picturesque community across Kachemak Bay from Homer that is only accessible by boat. (Photo by Sharon Nault)